Stralian Stories: Squizzy Taylor by Neil Boyack
My dad said to me once that his dad (a person I never met), was a gangster. He would have been alive and kicking around the time of Squizzy Taylor, and if he was a gangster he definitely would have heard of the Bourke Street Rats. Who knows if they ever met, or were enemies, or handled stolen goods, dealt ‘snow’, or drank sly grog together? One thing is sure, the life of Squizzy Taylor is intermingled with a longstanding Melburnian voyeuristic fascination of crime figures and their journeys.
Squizzy Taylor’s life began on 29 June 1888, as Joseph Leslie Theodore Taylor, the second youngest of five children belonging to a Melbourne Coach builder. Originally living in Brighton, the family moved to Richmond as the depression of the 1890’s started to bite, and this neighbourhood was to be the backdrop for many of Squizzy’s antics and crimes. He was small in stature, which naturally lent itself to horseracing, and, as a jockey, Squizzy was influenced by the many shady elements attached to racetracks.
Soon he learnt that easy money came through petty crime. At age 20 in 1908, Squizzy was caught pick-pocketing at the Burrumbeet races and charged, and by 1910 Taylor was an entrenched part of the Melbourne underworld. Before long he was linked to blackmail, theft, extortion, then later, jury rigging, race-fixing, sly grog, and prostitution. Ultimately, it was the business of ‘snow’ (cocaine) that finished him. At one point late in his career Squizzy absconded whilst on bail, eluding the entire Victorian police force. Whilst on the run he started sending letters to the newspapers, which they published… “I have not quite fixed up my private business yet, but as soon as I have I will pop to the C.I.D knowing that I will be quite welcome” he wrote.
In 1927, Squizzy’s end came predictably, with a bullet. Allegedly the fatal shots came from the gun of a Sydney based rival, John Daniel “Snowy” Cutmore, whom Squizzy had dealt with earlier, in a chapter known as the “Fitzroy Vendettas”. Despite being bedridden with a bout of influenza, Cutmore shot and killed Squizzy in this exchange, having a gun under his pillow and managing to get a few shots off in the chaos. The incident happened at 50 Barkly Street Carlton, which these days is a block of units.
Squizzy’s death was put down to “Snowy” Cutmore’s bullet, although this was only the coroner’s version of events. The bullets recovered from Taylor’s body were matched to an Eiber “Destroyer” revolver. This exact pistol was found a little way away from the Barkly street house under a picket fence, casting doubt on Cutmore actually pulling the trigger on Taylor. At the time of his death Squizzy had made the error of lunging into the cocaine racket without first commanding the required clout or respect from the underworld.
Other theories, amongst theories, were that John Wren had set the whole meeting up in order to knock Taylor off, or that Henry Stokes, the “two-up king”, had Taylor and Cutmore both eradicated at once to make a clear path for his own ‘snow’ business plan.
A popular form of deception and standover favoured by crime gangs of the era was using female decoys to lure cashed up, married, men from racetracks and other events, to motel rooms. Here the kissing and cuddling would start in earnest, then one of Taylor’s henchmen would break in on the canoodling couple. Pretending to be the husband of the woman in-flagrante, the standover began, as the “aggrieved” partner promptly demanded payment from the adulterous man in return for silence around his misconduct. Refusal brought forth the utterance of “Mr Taylor” and this usually made victims offer up cash hand over fist. Terror was an essential element for this blackmail and standover to work. Two decades later a lesser known figure in the annals Australian crime, Jean Lee (the last women to suffer capital punishment in Australia), used an identical technique to make her ends meet, which ultimately took her to the hangman’s noose (refer Jordie Albiston’s wonderful book The Hanging of Jean Lee).
In a climate of Christian temperance and a moralising majority, the business of ‘snow’ infiltrated Melbourne around 1923. ‘Snow’, or cocaine, was a hangover from WWI, where experiments in refining opiates for medical purposes produced the substance which was commonly used in dentistry and medicine of the era. “In 1923 shocked journalists discovered that the ‘snow habit’ had reached the slum areas of Melbourne”. The effects of ‘snow’, a “deleterious” substance, also confused police as they were different from the effects of alcohol and opium, both established abused substances.
Deals were sold for 2 shillings a packet, which made 3 lines or “sniffs”. The drugs came from dealers who purchased in bulk from chemists. With an increased thieving of chemist stores, ‘snow’ was even turning up at the racetrack, with horses being doped. > Having created solid racketeering and clean profit through the reliable cash flow of illegal liquor trading, established crooks explored the new trade of dealing narcotics. Unlike today where cocaine is synonymous with wealth, stardom and runny noses, ‘snow’ was associated with the worst cases of destitution, poverty and addiction affecting individuals and families within the inner suburbs of Melbourne.
The stories and antics of Melbourne crooks are fascinating, as are tales further back in time, of desperate escaped convicts eating each other whilst on the run in a strange land, and bushrangers dressing up in armoured suits. Australia’s crime history contributes unwittingly, yet meaningfully to our culture, demonstrating patterns of innovation and solution from generation to generation, and the breadth of freedom within our society that is akin to the romance of a bum riding freight trains.
Examples of this cultural contribution are contained in the volumes of Australian True Crime literature, and the win-win-safe-bet of any TV production on Australian crime. Examples that come to mind are Matlock Police, Homicide, Cop Shop, Solo One, Bluey, the sensational Blue Murder, or the explosively popular Underbelly. Based on modern day transgressions, starring criminal identities, Underbelly is driven by the desperate thirst of Melburnians, and Australians, to cover themselves in naughty, serious intrigue, whilst fostering secret fantasies of somehow being connected, but not identified, with the tawdry and sorry parameters of crooks. The Australian culture’s mainstream fascination with crime and underworld identities is a long-established and lucrative industry.
High profile modern day court cases result in similar outcomes to their counterparts of the roaring twenties. Identical legal tactics used by learned counsel are used in same way Taylor’s “mouthpieces” intended. Modern day miscreant identities stall incarceration and live amongst the people with a sort of celebrity status. We are their backdrop, our houses, our streets, our communities. Shootings, arrests, assaults, set-ups, racketeering, all take place in our neighbourhoods offering a sense of reality and connection to the Underbelly characters and stories.
> Melbourne’s fascination and fear was the same in Squizzy’s day, as “sly groggers and armed, mobile robbers both terrified and thrilled Melburnians”.1
Far from the sharply dressed, big spending, ultra-salubrious, Great Gatsby crooks of Chicago, Melbourne crooks stuck to the crumbling, poverty stricken buildings and communities within the inner city. There was no real concern with empire building, but more an operational push to be rich, to maintain status, to squash rivals, and to get even with double-crossers. The crooks of Melbourne walked quietly at night, and walked even more before motor cars became a realistic option. Another, delicious reason Squizzy Taylor’s era is so compelling are the wonderful mug shots taken by police. Photography was rare in the era of Taylor, which is why many were dressed in suits, or in their “Sunday best”. It was a badge of honour to be photographed, elevating status. We are free to marry the stories to the faces, looking into the eyes of mean men who would never have allowed such a thing to happen whilst they were alive. We pound the same pavements, use the same buildings, drink at the same pubs, meet on the same corners and live in the same addresses. We are still their audience.
Neil Boyack is a writer and social worker. He is creator and director of the Newstead Short Story Tattoo. His new book Self Help and Other Works is out now, Check www.neilboyack.com and www.newsteadtattoo.org